Time for revenge - Connacht return to Kingsholm with huge prize at stake 

Michael Swift salutes the Connacht fans after playing his final game at the Sportsground on Saturday. 
			Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Michael Swift salutes the Connacht fans after playing his final game at the Sportsground on Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

After a season of learning curves, Connacht now face a critical test in Sunday's Champions Cup first leg qualifier with Gloucester in Kingsholm.

Having lost to the Cherry and Whites in the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup, which Gloucester went on to win - and consequently receive England's qualification play-off place - Connacht know what they must do if they are to progress to the second-leg qualifier against the seventh-placed French side next weekend.

Gloucester are favourites on paper and by virtue of home advantage, but Connacht will certainly not be overawed by a side that finished ninth in the English premiership, behind Harlequins (8 ), Sale (7 ), Wasps (6 ), and Exeter (5 ). At their previous meeting on Good Friday, Gloucester took the honours by 14 - 7 - two first-half tries breaching a Connacht defence under pressure - but Connacht know it was a game they could have won, but for a poor first half.

What is different this time round is that there are no more routes to Champions Cup rugby for either side, and unless Connacht produce an 80 minute performance, start better, and kick more effectively, they will have failed in achieving their ambitions despite producing their best season on record.

"Effectively it's the Pro 12 versus the Premiership this week," says coach Pat Lam. "There is no doubt they have the advantage because they are playing at home. It's a great atmosphere there, the boys loved it last time we were there, and so that certainly helps, although the team going there this week will not be the same because of injuries.

" We know the quality of their team. They have serious strike prower, and they have had the week off and  are fully fresh. We understand all that, that's the challenge."

Lam's biggest injury headache this week is Kieran Marmion with an ankle injured. An x-ray proved clear, but Connacht are awaiting news of a follow-up MRI scan. There are no players on the return-to-play group ready available for selection, so Lam says all squad members are on high alert, ready to travel.

"Fortunately we have an eight-day turnaround which gives us a bit more time to recover, but the message for everyone in the squad is to prepare.  Everyone who remains fit needs to be prepared to play."

Lam has been forced to register a host of Academy players to fill the void left by the injuries to Mils Mulianina, Danie Poolman, Quinn Roux, Darragh Leader, Craig Ronaldson and Ian Porter who featured in Connacht's previous Kingsholm, and include players such as scrumhalf Caolan Blade, out half Conor McKeon who came on as a replacement against Zebre, Ireland u-20 centre Peter Robb, prop Saba Meunargia, Young Player of the Year Rory Maloney, and James Connolly.

Lam, who says the season has been about the development of his young squad, will now hope lessons learned along the way will produce a commanding performance.  Against a Gloucester outfit that believes in its pack power, Connacht will need to produce a flawless set piece, while also attacking the breakdown with the necessary urgency.  Connacht's kicking game was found wanting in Kingsholm at Easter, and Jack Carty will need to produce an accurate display, supported by John Cooney or Marmion from the base  to establish territorial control and put the home side under pressure.

With Jonny May, Billy Meakes, and James Hook pulling the strings in the back line, Sunday is no time for Connacht's defence to lose their shape, while big questions will be asked of the Connacht three-quarters, in both attack and defence, to fulfill their potential.

The prize is massive for both sides and it is a great occasion for Connacht to strut their stuff on the European stage once again. Few would back Connacht, particularly given the depletion of their squad through injury, but, having signalled their intent from the start of the season, now is the time for the youngsters to step up and produce.  

"For us to have this chance, to be able to go there and do the job the hard way and come back and play at home would be an unbelievable day."

They will certainly need to start strong, as demonstrated again last Saturday in the final Pro 12 fixture against Ospreys when a poor first half cost them the game, losing by 20-24 at the Sportsground.

The concession of 24 first-half points, even given the strong wind, ensured only one outcome.  Yet once again, Connacht's fighting spirit kept their hopes alive, keeping the classy Welsh outfit scoreless in the second half, and achieving a bonus point to grab the seventh place.

"As it transpired even if we had won, we would not have gone ahead," said Lam. "But to get 50 points this season is 11 greater than we ever had. To get 10 wins and a draw - you all know the one-off games we should have had -  it's been a massive effort for us. But the reason was to get into Europe and the boys now have the chance on  Sunday to go to Gloucester." 

Saturday's two second-half try scorers Denis Buckley (Forward of the Year ) and Eoghan Masterson (Young Player of the Year ), were among the winners at the Connacht awards night, along with Robbie Henshaw (Players' Player of the Year ), Aly Muldowney (Team Man of the Year ) and Matt Healy (Back of the Year ).  The selection of Buckley, Masterson, Healy, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Eoin McKeon, John Cooney and Tieran O'Halloran on the Emerging Ireland team is a recognition of the strides  Connacht continues to make. 

Connacht: T O'Halloran; F Carr, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; A Browne, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (c ), E Masterson, E McKeon. Replacements: J Cooney for Marmion (20 ), G Naoupu for Browne (60 ), F Bealham for Ah You and M Swift for E McKeon (64 ), S O'Leary for Healy (69 ).

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